My mother, Bessie, [Breindel bat Reuven v’Malkah, z”l] died on the 11th of Sivan in 1990. Lung cancer claimed her life at the age of 76; she spent the last two months of her life in Calvary Hospital in the Bronx. At that time, hospice care was not at the level it is today and Calvary was one of the best in-patient hospice facilities, as it remains.
While Calvary Hospital is a Catholic facility, founded in 1899, it was recommended in the spring of 1990 when my mother’s situation became desperate; as a family, we had to deal with end of life issues very quickly. From the moment of her arrival, I came to realize just how caring and considerate in every way, Calvary Hospital was, with extraordinary staff members available to both the patient and to family members.
One of my memories of that first day, is seeing a staff member in the room my mother was to occupy. My mother arrived in an ambulance after suffering broken bones in both arms and one leg after falling in another hospital, where she had been for a short time for palliative radiation treatments; her limbs were brittle and the cancer-ridden bones were wrapped in ace bandages. Her moans or cries could be heard as far away as the elevator, and she was in constant pain. Calvary was expecting her, a new patient of the Jewish faith. There was someone in her room standing on a chair, taking down the huge wooden crucifix over her bed. It was a small gesture, but at the same time, it was not; it was a ‘big thing,’ a welcoming act, though it would not have offended us had it been left on the wall.
This is because we know…
The ‘treatment’ at this most exemplary hospice facility consists of making the patient as comfortable as possible, using whatever pain medication is necessary. Everyone on staff realizes and accepts the fact from the outset that the patients there are not going to get well; they are there so they can experience the most peaceful time on this earth during their last months. On the other hand, the traditional hospital’s approach was to encourage family members to accept questionable treatments. The hospice approach toward end-of-life issues is more widely accepted now generally, and there are two other branches of Calvary Hospital — one in Manhattan and another in Brooklyn – besides its Bronx facility.
My mother’s condition was diagnosed in the fall of 1989, and then by the spring of 1990, our lives were fully turned upside down both physically and emotionally; I am an only child, and our daughters were 17 and 7. After my mother’s diagnosis of stage 4 cancer, a terminal condition, and then her admission to Calvary, I visited my mother at the hospice in the morning on some days, and on other days, after work. On some days I stayed all day. Occasionally my husband visited in my place; sometimes I slept over. Calvary provided a pleasant room for overnight stays for family members, so as to make life for the family in the unbearable situation, just a bit more bearable. There is now a dedicated Shabbos lounge for shomer Shabbat families to use.
My goals were simple: I desired only to visit with my mother calmly and spend as much time with her as possible in the waning days and hours of her life. I remain forever grateful for the female Jewish chaplain at Calvary who visited my mother often in those two months; I have memories of her standing over my mother’s bed as I arrived, whispering to her, or just sitting near her bed. The tv in the room had the standard stations and in addition, a link to the chapel in another part of the building. My mother was never able to actually visit the chapel or eat the Kosher food which was available, but she enjoyed the chaplain’s visits, and the scene of the chapel and the calming prayers that filled her room via the tv’s chapel station. Presently there are three rabbis on staff, and a kosher pantry stocked regularly with glatt kosher meals and cholov yisroel dairy products.
After my mother’s death, I thought I would volunteer at Calvary, but I could not deal with returning and never did. I have memories of not only the excellent care she received, but of all the support staff. During my mother’s first week at Calvary, I became aware of the candy-stripe cart that slowly wended its way around the floor. Instead of a cart filled with meds for the patients as we are accustomed to seeing in hospitals, this cart contained wine, liquor, and other beverages and snacks — for the patients as well as for visiting family members. I was always too anxious to enjoy a glass of wine, but the entire ethos of this made my visits different and calming.
Recently I learned about something even more remarkable about Calvary Hospital, and how truly welcoming it is to patients of all faiths including the Jewish faith.
In March 1939, when the Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia, 1,564 Torah scrolls were confiscated. The Torahs and many thousands of other ritual objects were collected in a storage facility near Prague. These items were meticulously catalogued and tagged and kept for some unspecified future use; some scholars believe that the Nazis, planned to establish museums to testify to their acts, which would somehow justify their plans for extermination. After the war, the Torahs remained but the people did not; the Torahs could not be returned to their home communities, because there were no Jews to use them.
The Memorial Scrolls Trust was established in London. Soon after, negotiations began with the new Communist government of Czechoslovakia. Finally, in 1963, an agreement was reached to ship the Torahs to England, and they arrived in February, 1964. The Westminster Synagogue in London then agreed to distribute them to communities throughout the world. These Torahs are currently on permanent loan to more than 1,400 congregations throughout the world. Some Torahs are beyond repair and synagogues house such a Torah as a historic reference perhaps displaying it more openly on Yom HaShoah; others decided to refurbish theirs for actual ritual use once again. A book about the gathering and saving of these Torah scrolls is, Out of the Midst of the Fire, by Philippa Bernard.
In 1987 Calvary Hospital decided to request such a Torah from the Memorial Scrolls Trust for permanent loan in its multi-denominational Bronx facility, a request which was granted that same year. Then in November 2015, Calvary decided to actually embark on a project to restore the Torah to make it kosher enough to use in services. A campaign for restoration was begun, supported by the Charles R. and Winifred R. Weber Foundation and many individual donations. Though patients with cancer cannot be restored to good health, Calvary decided to both ‘safeguard and repair’ this historic Torah. More about the Westminster Trust can be found here.
Calvary’s Torah is Westminster Memorial Scroll No. 515, which dates back to 1880, and is from the town of Taus-Domazlice. Calvary’s website explains the project.
As a caring medical facility, Calvary has partnered since 2012 with Yeshiva University to educate people in the Orthodox Jewish community which has been under-served by palliative and end-of-life care, about how they may access about how to access excellent end-of-life care in accordance with Jewish law (halakha). In this way observant Jews can access the information they need to make appropriate end-of-life care decisions for their families.
This came out of the ashes of the Holocaust, and it is a light that will continue burning. … When you look at it, it’s not just parchment. There’s something about it, and it’s still literally alive,” says Rabbi Rachmiel Rothberger, Jewish community liaison at Calvary Hospital.
Calvary Hospital’s President and CEO, Frank Calamari explains, that Calvary’s compassionate approach is for “the body, mind and spirit of a patient who cannot be cured.”
When the restoration project began with the expertise of a Torah restoration organization, Sofer On Site, a program was held at the 92nd Street “Y.” In nearly three decades, Sofer On Site has helped repair hundreds of Torah Scrolls throughout the world. Restoration is a slow and painstaking project; the parchment needs to be repaired since parts of it are uneven and worn, most of the letters need to be rewritten or re-blackened so they are legible. For the Torah to be considered restored it must be completely free of any blemish; all words must be complete, no letters can be missing, and it must remain free of unwanted marks. The Torah restoration project is ongoing and involves the greater community beyond those connected to Calvary Hospital.
In just a few weeks, on Sunday, June 26th, a scribe will be visiting from Sofer On Site, and all are invited to visit! Call to select a time to meet the scribe, to have the honor of assisting him in writing a ‘letter’ in the restoration of this Torah scroll. Donations will be accepted then either in honor, or in memory, of loved ones. There are many levels of Torah Restoration Giving, including $360 for the writing of a single verse, $180 for a single word, and $54 for the writing of a single letter inscribed in your honor or in a loved one’s memory. All gifts will be acknowledged in a meaningful and appropriate way. This is your opportunity to participate in this holy work to bring this Torah back to life! The photo includes the phone number for that RSVP, (718) 576-2809, as well as the hospital’s address for sending donations.
My mother’s yahrzeit this year falls on June 17th. I will light a memorial candle in her memory- lighting it the night before, on the ‘erev’ as is the Jewish custom, and recite the Kaddish, and I will give tzedakah. In my family, my maternal grandparents were the only ones from among their siblings to immigrate to the US from Poland in the early 1900s, and so aside from two of their siblings who immigrated to Israel, those who would have been my mother’s aunts and uncles and their children were murdered in Treblinka, and were not ‘survivors.’
This Torah scroll is a survivor.
I know that during her short stay at Calvary Hospital, my mother would have been happy to know about and connect with this Czech Torah from the Holocaust. I am blessed to be able to support this forward looking project. If you, too would like to support this important initiative of a Torah scroll at Calvary, click here for the restoration project. Consider donating to the Torah Restoration Project and participating in person on June 26th.
May my mother’s memory be for a blessing.